DRT Slides into Ealing

Friday 15th November 2019

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It’s all change in the world of Bus Demand Responsive Transport (DRT). This week sees the final foray for Arriva Click’s pioneering ‘pilot’ in Sittingbourne and Zeelo’s scheme for pilots (and others) living in Crawley and working at Gatwick Airport. The former ends tomorrow having been launched with much fanfare back in March 2017 (quite a long ‘pilot’ then) and the latter packed up today after just three months operation.

No-one with any grasp of the economics of public transport (or new fancy terms such as ‘integrated mobility solutions’) will be surprised these initiatives have failed. It really was obvious from the start the DRT business model simply doesn’t stack up; as I’ve written and explained a number of times in these blogs and in my quarterly Inside Track column in Buses magazine.

But lessons are seldom learned and as Sittingbourne bites the dust Arriva are already announcing they’ll be announcing another DRT scheme some place else very soon – update: just heard this will be in Watford. More fool them; unless they’ve convinced another Local Authority and Developer (as in Leicester) to hand over Section 106 money to financially prop up the operation for a couple of years.

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TfL are also intent on splashing the cash (they haven’t got) on loss making DRT trials. And not only on one heavy loss making DRT venture in Sutton launched in May, but from this Wednesday starting the promised second year long trial based in Ealing.

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This one is supported by Slide – the company behind the financially disastrous ridesharing DRT/taxi venture in Bristol that was withdrawn a year ago – being run by RATP Dev as a ‘pilot project’ for just over two years from July 2016. I’d only just got round to deleting that Slide app from my smartphone so had to download this latest ‘SlideEaling’ version as I headed over to Ealing this morning to give it a try as I spotted a news release from TfL on Wednesday announcing the new service began that very day – not exactly giving much forewarning!

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Whenever I travel on these new DRT ventures I get mixed feelings hearing the optimism of the drivers. Today was no exception with Will, Ovi and Pat, on the three journeys I made, all amazingly positive about their career change and the future success of the venture which on the one hand is great to hear, but I fear their naivety will lead to disappointment in a few months time.

I don’t like to pop their positive bubble and I hope behind the scenes senior managers at RATP Dev owned London Sovereign, who are running this operation for TfL, are not giving them false hope.

There’s no way this operation is ever going to succeed; it’s only hope is for some equalities or diversity issue to come up which could justify TfL spending vast sums on keeping the service going after its twelve month trial.

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The software for this scheme is provided by MOIA rather than Viavan as used in Sutton (as well as used by Oxford’s Pick-Me-Up and Arriva Click). It has a few detailed differences; for example there are no texts to say your vehicle is shortly arriving nor afterwards asking for feedback. MOIA prefer to use their app to show the vehicle approaching the pick up point by way of an icon on a map with a timed countdown alongside. That’s snazzy but it does mean you need to keep looking at your phone screen if you want an update, rather than wait for the text as per the Viavan system. I read that MOIA is “the flagship mobility services subsidiary of the VW Group”.

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SlideEaling are also using MAN minibuses rather than the more common Mercedes favoured elsewhere. They’re Euro VI so are Ultra Low Emission Zone compliant.  They have just ten seats (which will be ample) and a rear tail lift for wheelchair access which will slow things down compared to boarding through the side door.

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Seats are comfortable with moquette rather than leather and laid out 2+1. There’s a wide entrance by the door but it does involve a step up. Not so easy for the less agile. Quite extraordinary not to be running low floor accessible minibuses.

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Inevitably there’s usb but I didn’t find Wi-Fi but these days I prefer the former and am not bothered about the latter, especially on short journeys when it’s too much faff to log in.

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London Sovereign have ten of these minibuses for the service (with legal lettering for London United) housed at RATP’s engineering base in Twickenham. Five vehicles are used during the day with the spare five vehicles entering service with late turn drivers as the five early turn drivers take their buses back to base, so a bit inefficient on the capital employed front.

The operating day is an extensive 06:00 to 01:00, seven days a week. Yes, really. TfL certainly know how to splash the cash when it comes to DRT trials. The five vehicles will be covering a large part of the London Borough of Ealing from Southall in the west to the North Circular in the east and from the A40 down to Boston Manor on the southern Borough boundary.

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Everything else is pretty much the same as in Sutton with rides costing £3.50 a go with a daily cap of £10.50, a weekly £35 cap and a monthly top whack of £105. Additional passengers booked at the same time pay £2 a ride. The system doesn’t accept Oyster or contactless and although journeys are encouraged to be booked and paid for through the app, there is a phone number given for people without smartphones and an operator will book the journey for you and let you know pick up location and estimated time, but after that you’re on your own, with no further updates.

Children under 13 are not carried unless with an adult and those aged 13 to 16 need parental or guardian consent to register with the service.

Freedom Passes and English National Concessionary Travel Scheme Passes need to be pre-registered by email when a six digit coupon number will be provided within 24 hours which can be entered into the app to provide a full offset to the cost of each journey giving a ‘nil balance’. I applied yesterday and received a reply within three hours. The coupon lasts for 180 days (it also refers to 1,000 journeys, but I won’t be travelling that often) so I assume I need to apply for a new coupon number halfway through the twelve month trial if I want to continue enjoying a free personal taxi service across Ealing.

My first journey this morning was from Ealing Broadway to Boston Manor. I booked it at 10.35 with an expected arrival within 8 minutes at a pick up point at Bus Stop D on Haven Green just a stone’s throw from the station exit.

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One annoying thing about the booking software is despite putting the “destination” icon in the exact place I want to go, it comes back with “16 Cawdor Crescent” rather than something a bit more user-friendly like Boston Manor. I appreciate this is because the minibus won’t be actually taking me to the front door of the station at Boston Manor which is tantalizing just over the scheme boundary, but it assumes I know where Cawdor Crescent is, which I don’t.

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The app also gives an estimated range for the journey time, in this case of between 11 and 21 minutes, which seemed a bit vague. Anyway Will duly drove up within the expected waiting time, and I was well impressed to hear I was his second passenger of the day. So a busy day for him!

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There’s a fleet number in the top nearside corner of the front so you can be sure you’re boarding the correct vehicle. Whereas Viavan lets you know the driver’s name, MOIA doesn’t, so that’s a helpful feature.

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His dashboard mounted tablet with its zoom in map showing directions took us along some very narrow residential streets for the Boston Manor bound journey. The software seemed to be doing everything possible to take us on a route that avoided any main road.

We duly arrived in Cawdor Crescent after a 12 minute ride and I bid farewell to Will who’d been driving big buses on and off for a number of years with Metroline as his last employer, so he had high hopes for this new venture.

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I wandered around to Boston Manor station and caught a Piccadilly Line train the two stops to South Ealing to reposition myself for my next journey to Greenford Broadway which I ordered at 11:12am.

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Again, despite landing the “To” icon exactly in the middle of the crossroads of Greenford Broadway, the software wanted to take me to Clifton Road, which I was also told was a 1 minute walk from 424 Greenford Road. Sounded good, so I booked it and was told my “Slide arrives in 12 min”.

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I was impressed that the route to be taken by the incoming vehicle to pick me up took account of the roadworks right outside South Ealing station and that Dorset Road, a 2 minute walk from where I was at “82A S Ealing Road” aka South Ealing station was closed as part of the works.

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Ovi arrived ten minutes later and we set off with an expected journey time range between “17-29 min ride”. Interestingly that worse case 29 minute scenario was almost as long as the TfL Journey Planner recommendation of catching a 65 to Ealing Broadway and changing to an E10. Suffice to say the Journey Planner didn’t know about Slide.

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I was chatting to Ovi and found I was his first passenger of the day. He’d also been a big bus driver, but for him, with London Sovereign itself so no employer change had been needed. I then noticed a screen immediately behind the driver which showed my initials alongside the drop off destination and the estimated time.

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I guess this might be useful if there’s more passengers on board (some hope!) as you can see the order of when you’ll expect to reach your destination. As Andrew Garnett pointed out on Twitter it’s a shame the manufacturer’s sticker hadn’t been removed!

As you approach the drop off, the screen changes to add a reminder “don’t forget your personal belongings”.

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Another repositioning via TfL big bus route 92 down to Ealing Hospital where at 12:06 I ordered my third and final ride of the day to take me right up into the north east corner of the Borough, just a stones throw from Hanger Lane gyratory and Underground station.

IMG_2968.jpgI was wondering whether the pick up point at Ealing Hospital would be by the bus stops for routes 92, 282 and 483 within the hospital grounds and sure enough it came through as at “TfL Bus Stop – Ealing Hospital” but prior to that confirmation it was insisting I was trying to book “from Denman Avenue” which must be an internal hospital road as the icon was definitely in the hospital grounds.

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Even more bizarre the destination drop off was shown as “Hail & Ride Section” which was a “O min walk” from “112 Garrick Cl’. I just wanted Hanger Lane!

It would be another “23-37 min ride” and “Slide arrives in 7 min”. Which it did.

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And surprisingly was a blue liveried minibus, but otherwise the same as the previous two internally.

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Pat, my driver, explained five of the minibuses are coloured blue and five white as a base colour. He wasn’t sure why; he was just pleased to see me, as he’d been on an early shift and I was his very first customer at 12:15.

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Like Will and Ovi, Pat had had big bus driving experience during his career and had been attracted to the innovative nature of this service which he had great hopes would be a success although he admitted he was getting worried about not having had any customers all morning until I came along.

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There was a bit of a gremlin in the ‘drop off’ screen behind the driver seemingly on the wrong display ratio.

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Pat also had some confusion as we rounded the Hanger Lane gyratory when he thought his tablet was showing to head south down the North Circular instead of back round on to the westbound A40, so just to be sure he went round the gyratory a second time and it became obvious the directional arrow in the top left hand corner was indicating an instruction in the distance shown, rather than immediate.

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Confusion sorted and I duly arrived at my destination of “Hail & Ride Sec…” after a 25 minute ride just over the optimistic range of the predicted “23-37 min ride”.

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Pat explained that he’d been waiting at his chosen spot all morning for a customer and it only then dawned on me that whereas Viavan’s software designates a spot where it’s optimal for drivers to wait, the MOIA software allows drivers to wait anywhere of their choosing. This seems an odd way of working as Pat admitted, first thing in the morning the drivers could all end up waiting close by each other in one corner of the Borough. He explained a controller can see where they all are and can ask them to move, but that’s hardly an efficient and cost effective way of working. I thought the software was supposed to remove the requirement for a costly controller; albeit someone also needs to be available to book phone requests from non smartphone owning passengers too.

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So, another DRT launch, another handful of solo journeys in my (now, free to use) personal taxi, and no doubt more hyped up trade press coverage to come. I see the Confederation of Passenger Transport and the Campaign for Better Transport were busy sending out missives to politicians and the trade press this week calling for innovative DRT type schemes to be funded and supported as the salvation of rural transport. I wish they’d get out of their offices and see DRT in action, lest we have more wasted funding prior to more DRT ‘pilots’ being terminated as hopeless causes.

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Roger French

 

 

Heathrow funds more bus routes

Thursday 14th November 2019

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It’s becoming notable how many new and improved bus routes are being introduced with financial support from Heathrow Airport offering better connections for staff and airline travellers. Anyone would think there’s a third runway in the offing.

I wrote about First Bus’s new RailAir link from Guildford to Heathrow when it kicked off back in July. Earlier this month I wrote about the much improved timetable introduced a couple of weeks ago on Thames Valley branded route 10 to Datchet, Windsor and Dedworth and yesterday I caught up with a couple more initiatives now up and running thanks to the ever generous Heathrow Airport Ltd.

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Route X442 began on 10th August providing a direct quick link from Staines rail station pretty much non stop along the A3044 past the massive reservoirs straight to Terminal 5. It supplements the more circuitous route 442 via Ashford Hospital, Stanwell and Stanwell Moor which has also seen an improved timetable with late evening journeys and a new Sunday service. Both routes 442 and X442 are operated by Carlone with swanky Mercedes minibuses with the usual leather type seats, awful leg room, especially over the wheel arches, but a handy usb socket in the side panels.

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Surrey County Council have also chipped in to facilitate the improved service and Spelthorne Borough Council (in which Staines resides) has aspirations for a ‘Southern Light Rail’ scheme which “will form part of the Oyster card network”. Recent press reports state the Council “had been given the nod to proceed with its bid” for such a scheme. I guess when you have a Masterplan which builds a new runway, eliminates communities by bulldozing hundreds of homes, diverts rivers and roads, burrows the M25 into a tunnel and goodness knows what else, a light rail connecting Staines into the airport is almost petty cash consideration. But, in the meantime for Stainesites and Heathrow workers using SWR trains to the station, it’s the new look X442 for now.

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I took a ride around lunchtime yesterday from Terminal 5 out to Staines and back again. It’s a tight run taking thirteen minutes pretty much non-stop. The half hour frequency is operated by just the one minibus, and one driver, who notwithstanding the punishing regime was amazingly cheerful (even handing me a promotional pen with timetable) but he did admit the constant up and down the same bit of the A3044 does get to him towards the end of the shift in the afternoons.

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The first X442 journey leaves Staines station at 06:33 and continues until 19:03. There’s an hours gap mid morning and mid afternoon when passengers are directed to use the circuitous 442 instead which is appropriately diverted via the station (where it doesn’t normally go – preferring the bus station for the rest of its approximate 90 minute frequency timetable). The 442 also covers for the missing X442 in the evenings and on Sundays.

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I was the only passenger on the 12:32 journey from Terminal 5 to Staines station but on the return trip leaving the station at 12:45 we picked a passenger up in the High Street who deliberately let the First Berkshire route 8 go by as she was pleased to tell the driver the cheaper fare on the X442 saved her £2. She reckoned a few of her colleagues had also twigged about the cheaper fares and made the switch. First’s route 8 also provides a fast half hourly link from Staines to Terminal 5, albeit serving the town’s bus station rather than the rail station.

The cheaper fares and the regular frequency will make the X442 an attractive link for the airport’s workers to and from Staines and the half hour frequency is generous but necessary if connections to trains at the station are going to be convenient. It’s quite an investment, but there again, Heathrow Airport can no doubt afford it.

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The second new route to Terminal 5 only began last week, so it’s still early days. Operated by Reading Buses/Thames Valley route 459 provides a link to Iver just over the border in Buckinghamshire and also takes in Langley (twice on each journey).

CEO of Reading Buses, Robert Williams has explained the full service is not set to begin until next February, but in the meantime the five off-peak journey a day Monday to Friday taster timetable runs between 09:38 and 14:28 and has been “mobilised exceptionally quickly for the various authorities and will build everything up as things progress”.

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The Reading Buses news release issued a couple of weeks ago says “the new route will be implemented in three phases as we trial different bus types”. Phase one started on Monday of last week and runs until 20th December using a full electric bus with the service “completely free to use”.

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Phase two runs during the month of January and “we will use one of our single deck buses that run on compressed natural gas”.

Phase three from 3rd February sees “the full timetable introduced which will include a service running from 3am until after midnight, and of course, include weekends. From phase three, full fares will be in operation”. This full service will be run by a Euro 6 diesel engine bus.

This is an intriguing way of starting a new bus route; I’ve never come across anything quite like it before, and am not sure I understand the logic behind the various phases nor why the three month lead in period until the full timetable.Screen Shot 2019-11-14 at 15.25.55.png

Route 459 takes in part of First Berkshire’s route 7 through Langley and I wonder if they will be pleased about this new interloper once the full timetable is introduced next year. For now, the five off-peak journeys are hardly a threat and unsurprisingly yesterday when I had a ride around on the 11:38 from Terminal 5 we left with no-one on board.

The online route map (above) shows “certain journeys only” making a detour via Langley before commencing the anti-clockwise circuit via Iver and we followed this route and the timetable shows all five journeys do so; perhaps this will change once the full timetable is implemented.  It certainly adds to the sense of going round in circles for people travelling to Iver.

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When we got to Iver station we picked up a passenger who thought we were the Redline Buses operated infrequent route 583 to Uxbridge where she was heading to (presumably) change on to TfL’s route A10 to get to Heathrow Central Bus Station for Terminal 2, so she was well pleased to discover she was on a free-to-use bus (for now) to Terminal 5 where she could make a (free) connection to the Central bus station. She was the only passenger but there didn’t seem to be much publicity for the 459 at bus stops as we went along the route, so that wasn’t surprising.

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I spotted a timetable attached to a bus stop pole in Iver itself, but there was nothing displayed in bus shelters in Langley or through Colnbrook and no bus stops plates had the 459 number added.

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I commented last week about the appalling dearth of helpful information about bus departures at Terminal 5 itself and wasn’t surprised to see no mention at all of the 459 anywhere yesterday.

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It seems quite bizarre that Heathrow Airport are funding at considerable expense these new services, including the 459 and the improved route 10, yet there’s absolutely no mention of these initiatives. Quite how people are supposed to find out about them I really don’t know.

Terminal 5 compares very poorly with the Central Bus Station where there are at least displays advising you where to catch buses and coaches, and their destinations.

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Compare the above with this disgraceful display at a Terminal 5 bus stop.

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While at the Central Bus Station, I picked up a copy of the acclaimed Local Bus & Coach Guide (edition 2 dated 1 July 2019) and this is a real gem with a regional map showing bus routes to and from the airport, who operates what, and what special fare deals are available for airport staff.

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Hopefully another edition will be published soon with all these latest initiatives included. And Terminal 5’s departure bays will get some much needed attention.

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Roger French

Stagecoach’s new Designer X1

Tuesday 29th October 2019

IMG_2139.jpgIt’s good to see Stagecoach introducing another new commercial inter-urban bus route with the Group’s Yorkshire company trailblazing a brand new service between Chesterfield and Nottingham this week.

The new X1 provides an attractive alternative to the long standing Pronto branded route Stagecoach East Midlands operate jointly with TrentBarton running every thirty minutes via Mansfield. The X1 takes a shorter more westerly route via Clay Cross and Alfreton as well as using a section of the M1. It also offers a much quicker journey between Alfreton and Nottingham than TrentBarton’s half hourly Rainbow 1.

IMG_2071.jpgThe X1 timetable offers an hourly frequency on Mondays to Saturdays and every ninety minutes on Sundays with an end to end journey time taking around 80 minutes depending on the time of day.

IMG_2207.jpgOperated by three double deck buses based in Chesterfield to the 2014 version of the Stagecoach Gold specification (Wi-fi and pretend leather seats but no usb), the first weekday journey heads down to Nottingham as early as 05:27 to provide a 06:54 return with the last southbound journey at 18:50 and 20:15 back. Saturday’s timetable starts about an hour later but includes a late evening northbound departure back from Nottingham at 23:00. A 12 hour day from 08:30 to 20:30 is available on Sundays.

IMG_2025.jpgThe X1 has kicked off this half-term week with an eye-catching fare offer of just 1p single so I couldn’t resist taking a ride today to try it out.

IMG_2078.jpgI arrived at Nottingham’s Victoria bus station in time to catch the 13:06 departure to Chesterfield. The bus was due to arrive on its previous journey into Nottingham at 12:55 and was only a few minutes late having brought in a good load from Chesterfield.

IMG_2148.jpgJulie from Stagecoach Yorkshire had been busy handing out timetable leaflets for the X1 to passengers passengers waiting in Nottingham’s Victoria bus station and was impressively promoting the new service to everyone passing through.

IMG_2069.jpgA large banner also helped to draw attention to the new route and it was good to see the departure bus stop flag and timetable case had been updated.

IMG_2024.jpgAlthough the TrentBarton departure stand listing hadn’t yet been updated …

IMG_2026.jpg…. but they did have a supply of leaflets alongside their travel information window in the bus station.

IMG_2065.jpgAround 25 passengers boarded the X1 and we set off on time at 13:06 picking up a few more at bus stops on the way out of the city centre.

Bus stop flags had all been updated in both Nottingham and once we’d passed into Derbyshire and it looked as though new timetables were on display too.

IMG_2137.jpgWe joined the M1 at junction 26 at 13:30 and continued for ten minutes to junction 28 where we left to do a 6-7 minute double run to serve the vast East Midlands Designer Outlet.

IMG_2124.jpgThis Outlet is dominated by a massive free car park ….

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…. with the bus stop for the X1 a bit of a walk from the shops but on the upside the bus won’t get stuck in a queue of cars seeking out an empty space.

 

IMG_2135.jpgWe lost a bit of time passing through a busy Alfreton and temporary traffic lights near Clay Cross cost us a couple of minutes so we pulled into Chesterfield at 14:30, six minutes late. It’s quite a tight schedule although differential running times through the peaks will help.

We must have picked up about a dozen passengers during the journey indicating interest already being generated on only the second weekday for the service.

 

IMG_2074.jpgSome of the passengers were abstracted from TrentBarton but the novelty of a 1p fare all this week has undoubtedly also helped and half term week is always a good time to launch a new service especially with the build up to Christmas in the coming weeks as shopping centres get busier.

Julie was telling me the idea for the service came from a number of different travel demands including students, shoppers and commuters, particularly the quicker journey between Alfreton and Nottingham thanks to the X1 using the M1 and taking just over 45 minutes (longer at peak times) compared to 80 minutes on TrentBarton’s Rainbow 1.

Julie pointed out a passenger catching the 17:15 X1 from Nottingham would be in Alfreton by 18:14 but not until half an hour later at 18:45 on the similar timed 17:15 departure on Rainbow 1. Mind you, they’d arrive at Alfreton station half an hour earlier at 17:43 if they caught the 17:17 Northern train from Nottingham but that might depend how convenient the stations are located at each end of the route for their end-to-end journey.

East Midlands Railway and Northern Trains provide a half hourly train service between Nottingham and Chesterfield (the hourly Norwich-Liverpool and hourly Nottingham-Leeds) taking between 33 and 38 minutes (depending on calling patterns) but the bus is likely to have more convenient picking up points. Stagecoach’s £7 day ticket offers savings on the Any Time day return of £18.80 (any train) or £15.40 (Northern trains only) and the Off Peak day return of £14.80 (any train) or £12.10 (Northern trains only).

I usually get a feeling quite quickly whether a new route is likely to be a success. Whereas I think the M2 introduced by Stagecoach South East between Canterbury and North Greenwich I reviewed back in July is going to struggle, I have a good feeling about the X1, rather like the X10 introduced by the same Stagecoach Yorkshire between Barnsley and Leeds two years ago which seems to be doing well.

I think the omens are good for the X1. It will be interesting to see if TrentBarton react to protect their Alfreton market.

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Roger French